Who says our kids can’t learn dialects and multi-languages at the same time?

Are our kids incapable of learning dialects and Mandarin at the same time? Our government thinks so. Education Minister Heng Swee Kiat said recently at a dialogue session that learning “dialects will burden school kids more” which makes it clear that the authorities will not be encouraging our kids to learn dialects any time soon. His rationale for this is because he wants to ensure that our Singapore children have a sound grasp of English and the mother-tongue language. He also said it is best for the kids to learn dialects later on in life if they wish.

The government’s stand on dialects is built on fallacies that must be demolished.  Firstly, they are assuming that Singaporeans are unable to handle anything more than two languages competently. This is a fallacy. I have witnessed numerous older generations of Singaporeans, who grew up in the early 1900’s through to the 50s, 60’s and 70’s, who are able to speak not one but a few dialects, some Malay and reasonably good English and Mandarin.  My entire family including my elderly aunts and uncles are multi-lingual. Personally, I can speak three dialects and am fluent in English and Mandarin.

So unless Singaporeans have grown more stupid over the years, I do not see why the kids of today can’t learn dialects too. In fact, ain’t the kids getting smarter through the years with better education, nutrition and early learning opportunities?  And isn’t our education system better and more advanced now in its pedagogy and teaching of languages?

Back in the late 1970s, the government started doing away with dialects because there was a significant number of Singaporeans who did not master Mandarin and they promptly blamed this on the use of dialects. Henceforth, dialects were banned from TV and radio programmes and launched the Speak Mandarin campaign. This effectively killed the interest of Chinese youths in learning and the interest of parents in teaching dialects as all focused on Mandarin.  What I want to know is, why didn’t the government blame it on poor teaching methods instead of on dialects? Was there any factual proof to show that it was solely the direct result of speaking dialects that caused the poor mastery of Mandarin? If there wasn’t, shouldn’t they substantiate their stance against kids learning dialects? Are there other unmentionable political reasons for doing away with dialects?

We are in 2013 now not 1970s. It is time to stop politicising dialects and dissuading Singaporeans from learning them.

Mr Heng also said: “I don’t think you want a system where we get our kids to start learning in an even more complicated language environment. As it is, our language environment is already very complex.”  This statement is based on the fallacy that kids cannot handle too many languages, or in our case more than two – English and Mother tongue.  I am surprised that an education minister can say this as it is widely documented that kids, from the time they are babies, have the innate ability to pick up sounds, verbal codes and multiple languages. A study done in 2012 by an NUS prof showed that infants as young as 18-30 months were able to coordinate different sets of rules in learning languages. Childhood is actually the best time for kids to pick up languages and dialects naturally. Many studies have also demonstrated the learning of multiple languages benefits not only a student’s linguistic abilities but also their cognitive and creative abilities as well.

And let’s get this right, it is the entire education system here that has become complicated and not the learning of languages. Overhaul the education system to make it less stressful for kids and parents yes but do not drag dialects into the picture. Dialects are not taught at schools but taught at home. I picked up dialects from speaking with my family and friends and from watching dialect programmes.

Mr Heng also made a remark that in Shanghai they are also facing a loss of in the use of their dialect to try and defend his stance. True, while dialects are being used less frequently in China thanks to the more pervasive use of Mandarin, dialects are still thriving there as the people take great pride in speaking them. This is unlike Singapore where dialects have been denigrated as a hindrance (if not downright useless) by our government. Here, dialects are in danger of being wiped out in another generation if our country’s leaders steadfastly refuse to do anything to reverse the situation. Is this what they really want?

In Europe, many people there can speak multi-languages too. The Europeans are known for their ability to speak various languages, be it German, Spanish, French, etc. in addition to English. So why can’t Singaporeans be encouraged to be similarly enabled?

I love the use of dialects for the colour, richness and diversity and for the intimacy in bonding I get when I use it with my family, friends, at the kopi-tiam, with the elderly, with the aunties and uncles. I love the extra warm treatment and that invisible connection I feel when I speak Cantonese to people in Hong Kong and when I speak Hokkien in Taiwan. Dialects have deep roots for the Chinese.  It is a cultural heritage and an indelible part of our history that should be preserved.

Ironically, few of the young know that dialects are, historically, our original mother tongue (though our ministers and anglicised LKY may disagree).  It is also interesting to note that Mandarin is based on the phonological system of dialects in and around Beijing and many words and expressions are derived from various dialects in other districts. As a Chinese research author wrote in a paper supporting dialects: “Without dialects, Mandarin would no longer exist and can never be developed”.

Recently, I was encouraged when I read a commentary by an NTU student Jeraldine Phneah who lamented the loss of dialects. She said it was necessary to learn it to build better ties between the youths and the elderly including with grandparents who speak dialects. It will also help in a society with a fast aging population to prevent the elderly from feeling isolated. Jeraldine also started an online petition to ask the government to consider allowing dialects on local broadcast stations. Do sign it if you support this cause  http://www.thepetitionsite.com/312/814/814/support-the-reintroduction-of-dialects-on-local-tvradio-programs/

On the point about isolation of the elderly, let me share a personal anecdote. At a recent family dinner, the entire conversation among four generations was conducted in English as my nieces and nephews could not speak any dialect. My mum and granduncle sat quietly in a corner trying not to look forlorn. It was obvious that they felt left out as they would occasionally ask timidly in dialect:”What did they say?”. The disconnect between the young and older dialect speaking generations is obvious. We are greeted by blank faces even when we use common dialect words in jokes. And I have heard youths mispronouncing “chope” as chop!

As our government has declared that they are willing to listen to Singaporeans’ views in this  less dictatorial era, I truly hope that they will hear us well on this matter of dialects. Dialects are an important part of our roots and a big part of our Singapore history from the time of the early migrants from Asia centuries ago. Mai hum (no cockles) and kopi siew dai are still part of our daily lingo here when we order food and drinks. Many dialect words have evolved to become part of our Singlish. “I chope this place” is our quintessential way of saying we reserve something be it a table or a seat for example. There is so much value and fun in using dialects, for those of us who know it.

The need to do something proactive to protect and promote the learning of dialects is made all the more compelling by the incessant influx of foreigners and new immigrants who will bring with them their own languages and which will further dilute the use of dialects.

In our nation’s search for our Singapore identity, I urge the government to have a serious rethink on dialects even as they continue to promote the mastery of English and Mandarin. Please do not eliminate our dialect roots at the expense of pursuing an economic goal but help us to preserve our cultural heritage. Surely, a capable government can think of creative ways to help Singaporeans master key languages and yet nurture the speaking of dialects? One doesn’t have to thrive at the demise of another.  It would be a sad and tragic day if dialects were to disappear from Singapore. Kee Chiu if you agree.

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13 Responses to Who says our kids can’t learn dialects and multi-languages at the same time?

  1. Pingback: Who says our kids can’t learn dialects and multi-languages at the same time?  |  The Real Singapore - Temasek Review Emeritus - The Temasek Review - The Online citizen - The Real Singapore

  2. schizophoenix says:

    I started learning Cantonese at the tender age of 21, so that I could talk more effectively with my grandparents. Ended up learning from a podcast of a Scandinavian lady teaching an English lady :/ (which is a HK radio program)

  3. hope you found it fruitful and fun learning it . Am sure your granny appreciated your effort:)

  4. Angry Citizen says:

    This is another top-down “I know it all and you know nothing” attitude so typical of the PAP government. Let me share my expoerience. I am 68 and I spoke my mother tongue Cantonese from young till I attended two years of Chinese medium primary school where I picked up Mandarin. Then I was transferred to an English medium school when I learned to be proficient in English, my professional working language. So I speak the Cantonese dialect fluently, Hokkien and some Teochew enough to engage in simple social conversation. I speak Mandarin too though not as fluently as Cantonese. Like Jentrified Citizen I had that special linguistic bond with my colleagues inn Hong Kong when I wsa in a regional function.

    Because of my fluency in Cantonese I was able to learn from my grandmother and parents Chinese history, legends, stories and values. Oh, not to forget learning Chinese history and values from the Cantonese story teller Lee Dai Saw. Whenever I ask our Singapore education system products who are purportedly bi-lingual aspects of Chinese history and culture they draw a blank.

    Now when I listened to some Singaporeans speak, I cringe. Why? They either speak with English words but using Mandarin syntax and grammar or speak with Chinese words (Mandarin) using an odd mixture of half-baked English grammar. In other words, they speak English which other speakers of English cannot understand or they speak Mandarin other Mandarin speakers have difficulty in grasping. Meanwhile they cannot speak their dialect mother tongue thus depriving them of the link with the older generations and missing the cultural values.

    No, it is not that Singaporeans can’t handle dialects but the teaching methods and teachers fail us Singaporeans. That means the problem rests squarely on the shoulders of the Ministry of Education and the PAP government warp ideas of teaching and learning languages.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience. I too have many fond memories of dialect experiences and encounters. We certainly should not blame speaking dialects unfairly. After all, the youths and those in their 20s who grew up not speaking dialects are still not speaking very good Mandarin nor English. So who or what is to blame for this state of affairs? This is something the Education Minister needs to look into seriously and honestly.

  5. Daniel says:

    Perhaps we should first find out what context is Mr Heng talking about the learning of dialects? Is he referring to learning dialects academically or more for conversational purpose?

    Are you able to share why your nieces and nephews are not able to speak dialects?


    • HI Daniel, the link is provided in the second line of my post to the report on Heng’s comments. I don’t think he was referring to studying dialects academically as he was responding to some query about the loss of dialects. Dialects were never taught in schools in the first place. As for my nieces and nephews, it is a common situation in many families where English or Mandarin has become the main language spoken among Singaporeans. Over the past 20-odd years, parents don’t usually teach dialects cos there is no time or because they are more concerned about their kids doing well in English and Mandarin. The kids also have little incentive to learn dialects unlike in the older days when we were able to watch dialect programs like the HK TVB shows. It is getting worse as the young parents in their 20s often do not know how to speak dialects so we can forget about them teaching their toddlers. Nowadays, we are more likely to hear the young speak some Korean as they are following k-drama and k-pop on TV and online!

  6. Pingback: Daily SG: 23 Apr 2013 | The Singapore Daily

  7. Dawan says:

    Languages will disappear over generations, not only dialects. You can’t be asking the government to start teaching dialects in school, can you? If they start to do that, we will have another problem, Singapore is made up of multiple dialect groups… and who are they going to use the dialect to speak to in future?

    The reason for putting Mandarin as the main medium for Chinese is not because of the difficulty to learn multiple languages but we need a common language– same for China, why they had voted Mandarin as their national language. Imagine in the early days, a Hokkien trying to speak to a Cantonese… and human nature is such that we tend to group ourselves and look down on others. Many street fights (wars) in the early days of Malaysia and Singapore were clashes between dialect groups– the clash between Cantonese and Hakkas in KL, and etc… Ask your grand parents of their opinion of another dialect group? You will soon learn all the stereo typical views.

    Yes, for nostalgic reason, it is is a lost. Just like the Cantonese dialect that my father is able to speak, is probably gone forever in Singapore and Malaysia. Yes, even Cantonese has many variations, and some are totally different, the one that we are hearing now is called the Yue language– the most common and widely used dialect in Canton province. It is probably the same for other dialects such as Hokkien with the Hok Chiew, Southern Min, and other languages. Dialects within a dialect group is merged and some will become common while others forgotten, so it is only natural that a common language for the Chinese will emerge and perhaps who knows in another 1000 years, human kinds will be left with only a handful of common languages?

    If you want to blame the lost, just blame the changing world, in the old days, the language was just for communication within the village and human traffic did not move far from the next village, but we are in a globalized world now, so it is a natural progression that common language will emerge for ease of communication.

    • Yes we all know the reason and need for common languages. But even then, I disagree that dialects have to die out or be shunted aside just to clear the way for the common languages. No one is asking MOE to teach dialects in school as an academic subject but the government can start by not banning dialect programmes or the use of dialects on local TV and radio. Speaking and learning dialects is a free choice but it helps to have a nurturing environment for people to learn it. Dialects are part of the Chinese history and cultural heritage and are our original mother tongues, just as Malay language is part of the Malay culture. We can and should do much more in preserving this.

      • Dawan says:

        Starhub TV still have Hokkien and Cantonese channels, but in 30 years time, it will probably be gone because of commercial sense. It is just a natural progression, in Singapore case, the Government played a hand in it and accelerated the process.

        Look at Malaysia where there is no government policy of single common language among the Chinese, different dialects are spoken in different states and cities, and not many Chinese in KL could speak Mandarin even in the early 90s. Look at today, many Chinese are speaking Mandarin now, and TV and Radio programs are slowly changing from Cantonese to Mandarin as well.

        In the old days, many do not marry outside their own dialect group, and stick to certain enclaves, thus dialects could be preserved. Nowadays, inter racial marriage is common let alone inter dialect groups. In this type of family, the language spoken will most likely be a common language, be it Mandarin or English. The natural environment for everyone to learn the dialect is at home. If no one is speaking that anymore, it will just die off.

        I do not think dialect is so important as part of Chinese history. Voice record was invented only in the recent 100 or so years. Thanks to Emperor Qin, we have a unified written language where we can understand our ancestors and history. Most Chinese capitals were built in the Northern region, so the language they spoke was more like Mandarin. Up to Tang Dynasty, the language spoken was more like Hakka/ Cantonese, after Tang Dynasty, the language was pretty similar to Mandarin. If you are able to trace back your ancestry further like 1000 years ago, they were probably from the North as well, and probably be speaking some Mandarin like dialects.

        Let it be and let it go. Heritage and Culture existed because the way our ancestors lived, and how we are living today will be tomorrow’s heritage and culture, it could be similar, or it could be different entirely. Just like the Peranakan culture, because their ancestors adopted the local culture and blend it with their original culture, after many generations, it becomes a unique culture by itself. Singapore may one day have its own unique culture and heritage, perhaps similar to Peranakan but with a Western twist.

  8. roni63 says:

    How stupid can members of the government be? Scientific research show that learning of languages are best learned during the early years.

    One reason for this is because of the rapid development of the child’s brain in the early years, which we call, “Critical Windows of Opportunities”. Exposure to rich experiences shape the formation of the neurological network of the child’s brain. The richer the experiences, more pathways are built and connections are made. These impacts will last for as long as the child lives.

    In addition, an infant from any part of the world is born a “universal” child, which means that he is capable of learning and speaking any language or languages of the world. The sounds that he verbalises are the same sounds that infants all the world over at around his age will verbalise. As the child develops and matures, his babbles begin to change and they begin to sound like the language/s of his environment, the language/s he is exposed to. This is because the child begins to drop the sounds that he is not exposed to. It is also why it is harder to learn languages in later years. As such, if we want children to learn languages, it should be when they are children.

    “Children do have an easier time learning new languages compared to adults, but that’s only one of the good reasons for enrolling young ones in language classes. Exposing children to new languages also exposes them to new cultures and ideas, which excites their natural curiosity and enhances their tolerance and acceptance of people different from them. Learning new languages may also help children in other subjects as well, thanks to the brain boost they’ll get from language acquisition. Foreign language skills have been linked to other cognitive skills such as creativity and critical thinking, and students in foreign language classes often score better on both verbal and math examinations than their monolingual peers.”


    • Hi Ron stupid is not the word as this govt does things for political agenda. And it is the despot Lee Kuan Yew who is adamant to see the continued suppression of dialects as a means to control the majority who are Chinese here. We have to wait till he is gone before dialects get a reprieve as he is still wielding absolute power here even though is son is the PM.

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